The first specialized adoption agencies in the United States were
founded between 1910 and 1930 by women best described as philanthropic
amateurs who had grown up with the model of the nineteenth-century
“friendly visitor,” the predecessor of the professional
social worker. Louise Waterman Wise founded the Free Synagogue Child
Adoption Committee (later renamed Louise Wise Services in her memory
by her daughter Justine Wise Polier).
Clara Spence founded the Spence Alumni Society. Alice Chapin founded
the Alice Chapin Nursery, and Florence Walrath founded the Cradle.
Most were married to wealthy and prominent men. (Steven Wise, for
example, was a leading rabbi, zionist, and progressive reformer
involved in founding the NAACP and the American Jewish Congress.
Henry Dwight Chapin was a well-known New York pediatrician, founder
of the Speedwell Society, and vocal champion of home life and placing-out
for dependent children.)
These elite women were frequently motivated to
locate babies for well-off friends and acquaintances. The agencies
they founded expressed great optimism about adoption, and this clashed
sharply with the views of professionals, who believed in family
preservation, and proponents of eugenics,
who stressed the terrible risks of adopting poor peoples children.
The specialized adoption agencies differed in other ways from most
child welfare agencies at the time. They did not consider unmarried
mothers and their babies to be complete family units and did not
see the point in strenuous efforts to keep them together. In this
sense, these pioneering adoption agencies, founded by amateurs,
anticipated by many decades the pro-adoption ethos of the post-World
War II years. During these years, adoption became “the best
solution” for illegitimate
children, unmarried mothers, and infertile couples.